Richard Pilbrow couldn't have guessed it, but his lighting design for the London production of Blitz some 20-odd years ago has influenced the way Lenny Kravitz is being lit on his current tour. "I walked out of that show saying, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,' " says LD Jon Pollak. "So I went back to high school and spent my last year there doing the lighting for all the school plays and events like that."
While certainly a defining moment for the LD, Pollak had actually been leaning toward a career in stagecraft since his junior year--when his guidance counselor had pointed out that his avid interest in motocross racing probably wasn't going to evolve into a promising day job. "My mother took me to a Melvin Van Peebles play, and I thought that was really cool. So I enrolled in a stagecraft class and that was good fun. At the end of that year in high school, I went to New York and saw some more shows there. After that I went to London and I was hooked."
He returned to his native city of Los Angeles to pursue instruction in the technical theatre program at Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC). "I found myself under the tutelage of Peter Parkin--a brilliant guy. He urged us to pay attention to lighting from a natural point of view. Part of our class was to go out and see sunsets, and look for anything in the environment where light evoked emotion. From then on, I knew there was no way I was going to do anything else. Except, of course, race cars for fun."
Pollak continued his studies at UCLA, where he enrolled in its work experience study program, and earned a bachelor's degree in technical theatre. "Then I transferred to the Guilford School of Dance and Drama in England. We had to build a theatre out of a church; I didn't get to do much lighting at all. But we went to a lot of plays, and I saw a lot of dance. I also did a residency at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre where I did a lot of chief electrician work."
That is, before he got kicked out. Why? "For fraternizing with too many girls," he laughs. "I was a popular American, and the teachers didn't take kindly to my tact." But a certain actress in the program did. "I met my wife, Elaine--the love of my life. She was doing the acting part of the course, and I lit a show that she was in. We used to meet backstage behind the lighting desk. Once, when I was munching potato chips during a very quiet scene, she said, 'Do you realize that you can hear everything that you're doing out here?' So I stopped that. And I'm happy to say she's been bossing me around ever since."
First, Pollak returned to Los Angeles alone, where he worked for the next three years while Elaine was busy acting in Ireland and England. Having an English theatre school on his resume helped him get hired by quite a few dance companies. "I was the LD for the Los Angeles Ballet for two years. I also worked with Tandy Beall, a choreographer from northern California, and various other dance companies. I did little bits with Alvin Ailey, and the Ballet Rambert. Also, I was lucky enough to work one show where Twyla Tharp was the choreographer. Jennifer Tipton was the lighting designer. Seeing her work inspired me to keep at what I was doing."
Although Pollak enjoyed his work, he eventually realized that if he was planning to make a living, he would have to branch out. "I'd always been very much into music, so it seemed a natural progression for me to go into the field of lighting it. Having said that, the whole rock and roll scene was really a baptism of fire for me. Luckily, I actually started with a jazz artist, Tom Scott. He had a lot of good players in his band; the music was wonderful. We went to a lot of really bizarre places that rock tours never go, like the Philippines and China."
After that Pollak would occasionally temp as an LD at the Roxy Theatre in LA on the Sunset Strip. "I was very lucky, because groups like King Crimson, Fleetwood Mac, and Genesis would come in--and they were groups I loved. It was great fun for a short while, and I developed a style of lighting music that was very much cue- and music-intensive. The jazz tour was extremely cue-intensive--there was so much going on in the music and they really wanted the lighting to follow every nuance. Doing those early tours originated the style that I still use today."
Pollak also learned how to get his name known by artists' management companies. "No work, no matter how good it is, is going to make any inroads with management unless there is a reason why they want to hire you. They have to have an ulterior reason--whether it's money or connections or a recommendation or a favor. It's never straight ahead. So I made various connections to various people, and started doing the touring circuit."
In 1988, having made plenty of business connections in LA, Pollak and his wife decided to move back to England where they are raising their two sons. This marks Pollak's 19th year as a touring LD, and his list of clients is impressive and diverse, as is the scale and scope of the venues he has worked in around the world. "One of the greatest highlights of my life was working for the Tubes. It was a real eye-opener for me because it was a great combination of rock music, theatre, satire, and farce. It was just wonderful. Michael Cotton, who is one of the keyboard players, was essentially a set designer--he now makes his living doing just that. So he would design the show and I'd light it. It was very much on the fly. But it was great fun."
In her pre-"Mickey" days, Pollak worked with Toni Basil, who had a weird follies/bazaar show, with a lot of dancing and music in it. "A lot of the members of Frank Zappa's band spurred off and created Missing Persons, which was an interesting band to work with," he says. "That was a very bizarre group--it included drummer Terry Bozzio, and his wife Dale Bozzio, who was the 'singer.' But I really got to stretch my legs on that. I was gifted a rig of 15 [Vari*Lite(R)] VL1s(TM) in 1984, and Zeb Cochran (a great operator) and I really put them through their paces. It was so easy tolight, because the music was screaming out for lighting cues--there were all sor ts of crazy beats. I used to convince the bass player to block the lead singer into her lights. I remember a lot of Vari-Lite staff coming up and saying, 'Whoa, what are you doing there?' "
Pollak acknowledges that his introduction to the VL1 automated luminaires forever changed the way he uses lighting. "Movement is a property of light that had not really been expressed up to that point, and after that, of course, it progressed to all sorts of other facets of moving lights. For me, there has to be a reason to move a light. It really has to be motivated by something musical or something movement-wise for me.
"I've been able to use moving lights in my arsenal, whether it be discreetly or indiscreetly, to great benefit," he continues. "Simple cues like 45-second color fades, going from one color to another while passing through other colors, or just gobo morphing. If it's appropriate, it can really embellish a piece of music or dance. When something is inappropriate and noticed, that's just a distraction, and I find that really horrible."
As a lighting programmer who has often worked with Pollak, Richard "Nook" Schoenfeld can attest to the LD's unique style. "No one can say enough about Jon Pollak's strange way of lighting," Schoenfeld says. "With Lenny he can take a huge, symmetrical light rig and paint the most obscure asymmetrical looks. I treasure those rare moments when Jon and I get to program together. The magic we create is something that I rarely come close to capturing in any of my other shows. He is a master of the abstract, doing lots of moves that nobody else would think of, let alone dare to do during a live show. And he pulls it off--most of the time."
As his lighting influences, Pollak names figures such as architects like Le Corbusier, artists like Monet, Manet, Seurat, and Escher, and Hitler's propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, who made Triumph of the Will. "And Marc Brickman had a great effect on me. Gee, I bet nobody's ever said that before," he laughs. "But I got the chance to work with him on Rickie Lee Jones' tour back in the late 80s, and he taught me a lot, including how to call spotlights. I would just sit in on cans and hear him belittle his operators. He was absolutely brilliant. We had a crew of idiots on the spots, and he put us in our place at the right moment."
Schoenfeld describes Pollak's own spot-calling ability as amazing. "Whether he's on a small, intimate stage with Elvis Costello, or a sprawling European velodrome with Lenny Kravitz, his spot-calling is often a treat to watch," he says. "His blackout cues, when all he leaves up are a single rear spot and some weak leko from the front, still get the biggest roars from the crowd. Like a good entertainer, Jon can work the crowd into a frenzy, just with his lights."
Pollak briefly left the touring life in 1986 to work for ABC Network News as a unit production manager in Los Angeles. "My wife had just given birth to our first son, so I wanted to stay home for a little while," he says. "It was a high-stress job, but I got the chance to work with some very interesting people in the news business. One of them, the desk chief, was, unbeknownst to me at that time, the father of Lenny Kravitz--Sy Kravitz. Little did I know that eight or nine years later I'd be working for his son."
Pollak was working for Belinda Carlisle when her manager introduced him to Lenny Kravitz in 1991. "I've been with Lenny since, and I've done most of his tours. We have a great working rapport."
Pollak also enjoyed a close working relationship with the Pet Shop Boys, when they did a run at London's Savoy Theatre in the summer of 1997. "Neil Tennant is a wonderful person and a great artist, with a very clear vision for what he wants, and their album Somewhere was a take on West Side Story," Pollak explains. "It was a very interesting project, because it integrated a film done by Sam Taylor Wood, which was very much interactive with the show. The Pet Shop Boys themselves would walk inand out of the film and onto the stage, and back and forth. So the first half of the show was all black-and-white. When the curtain went up on the second act, it exploded in color--as did the video. It was well choreographed, and nice to go back to the theatre roots of having a beginning, a middle, and an end. And there were no guitar solos. I was in heaven."
Last year, Pollak added newcomer Natalie Imbruglia to his list of clients. "She has a lot of powerful energy--honestly, she's like a modern-day Grace Slick, not fluffy pop. She really has an edge, and she's like a caged tiger onstage. We did shows at clubs and it was way too small for her. We then went to a festival in Italy at the Grand Prix track at Imola. I didn't spend much time at the show, but while we were there I noticed that while she was onstage she was crawling back and forth on this 100'-wide proscenium, and just absolutely tearing it up. Even that amount of space couldn't contain her. I would love to work with her again."
Pollak counts his time spent working with the Cure last summer as a career highlight. "Robert Smith also has great vision and knows exactly what he wants to portray," says the LD. "He is coming out of his shell a bit, so he wants to push the envelope of what he knows is a performance reality. We had a great time, and learned a lot from each other."
Lee Charteris, who served as the production manager on both Somewhere and last summer's Cure tour, says that Pollak has a great talent for communicating with musicians. "He's eloquent enough to be able to talk to artists, who sometimes have a difficult time explaining what they want. Jon's really good at bringing it out of them," he says. "He makes them feel very much a part of the creative process, and that's all-important. You could be the best LD in the world, but if the singer thinks you think he's stupid or you're not listening to him, then it doesn't really matter how good you are. Plus, he understands TV, video, and a lot more than just switching the lights on."
Having been in the music business for nearly 20 years, Pollak has collaborated with quite a few board operators. "Now that Flying Pig Systems has created this brilliant board, the Wholehog II, I tend to do it all myself," he says. "That isn't to say that I'm not always learning from people like Nook, and Bill Frostman and Scott Zematis, who are both out with me now on Lenny's tour. But I've used a wide range of lighting instruments and now I'm getting very much back into running the show, because that really is my forte. That's where I can transfer my knowledge of music and timing to lighting, which to me is so effective and a sort of trademark signature. It is the reason people hire me. But I wouldn't at all be averse to having someone else operate a show if the situation called for it, because I love the rapport you get with operators."
Charteris contends that it is this team effort approach to his work that makes Pollak one of his favorite LDs. "Not only does he always do a good job, he's a good guy," Charteris says. "He's open-minded and very aware of others' positions on tour. Sometimes the lights become all-important to an LD and obviously, as a production manager, you know it's not true, but convincing them isn't so easy. But Jon will adapt to any amount of lights and to any situation. It's easy to work with LDs when you have a massive budget. It's not always so easy to deal with the creative side of those people when you don't have very much money. And ultimately, that's what makes them get creative.
"If Jon believes in something strongly enough, he'll go to bat for it," he continues. "He's not a pushover; he will argue his point. But he'll do it constructively and diplomatically. He's a good road person. Day to day, he'll change his design to make it fit into a certain venue--he's as flexible as can be in that situation and that's an admirable quality for anyone who is on the road. I've had more fun working with Jon as an LD than I have with anyone else."
Apart from touring, Pollak has done a handful of industrial shows. "I've done Goodyear Tires, which was right up my strada, as it were. I lit 72 Formula One cars; I used a lot of HMI lamps, Arri 2ks and redheads. It was for a video shoot in the National Exhibition Center in Birmingham, England. But it also toured, and I went to certain Grand Prix where I had to make sure that the lighting was just right. The exhibition was really good. It got reviewed in Auto-Sport magazine. Unfortunately, Goodyear has pulled out of Formula One racing; hence, the end of my connection there. So I am going to go knock on Bridgestone's door, and see if they have any Formula One cars they need lighting for."
Pollak also did some work with IBM in the middle 1980s for some of its sales conferences in Florida. "It was basically just lighting entertainment, but they're great people," he says. "Mostly it's just been steady rock tours, and the odd theatre show in England, or dance. If I had my druthers, I would just light modern dance from here on out. For me, it is the most expressive medium for light.
"Music and movement and that kind of magic doesn't create a lot of borders that rock shows and industrials do," he continues. "There is a lot more leeway to create there. Plus, if you have a brilliant choreographer and someone who wants to feed ideas off you and you feed ideas off them, it's wonderful. I am very much one for less-is-more. The lighting designer's job is to light the music, light the money, or create a scene. Lighting should never detract--you're adding. It's a part of a package; it should be complimentary. Unless the artist says, 'At this point, I want to hurt them.' Which I do quite a lot on Lenny's current tour, I'm afraid. It's the Jon Pollak Retina Tanning Salon at some points. But the audience seems to enjoy it. And I'm certainly having fun."
1991-99 Lenny Kravitz world tours
1999 Lauryn Hill Japan tour
1998 Natalie Imbruglia world tour The Cure summer tour Morcheeba world tour
1997-98 Pet Shop Boys, Somewhere, Savoy Theatre, London, UK
1997 The Fugees world tour
1995-96 Elvis Costello Shirley Bassey world tours
1995 Goodyear F-1 Hall of Fame
1994 Counting Crows US tour
1992-93 Bob Dylan world tour
1989-92 Public Image Ltd. US tour
1989-91 Bonnie Raitt world tour
1991 Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians US tour
1990 The Go-Go's Reunion tour
1986-90 Belinda Carlisle tour
1987 IBM Conference, Miami
1985 Cheap Trick US tour Shadowfax US tour
1984-85 X US tour
1982-84 Missing Persons tours
1983 The Tubes world tour
1982 Tommy Tutone world tour
1981 Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Toni Basil shows and videos
1979-80 Tom Scott world tour
Lighting Designer/Production Manager
1989 Julian Lennon world tour
1986-87 Everly Brothers tour Unit/Transport manager for ABC Network News, Los Angeles
1993 Lighting Designer of the Year nominee, Performance magazine